Introduction to the Insane Scifi of Cordwainer Smith

Last month I wrote about the largely forgotten grandmaster of weird SFF, Clark Ashton Smith. Recently I’ve revisited the “best of” collection of another undeservedly obscured scifi great (and another Smith) – Cordwainer Smith.

I wrote a bit about Cordwainer Smith last year over at the Castalia House blog. If I may, I’d like to quote myself to introduce Smith, who was quite an interesting guy:

Cordwainer Smith was the pen name of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, born in Milwaukee in 1913. Though a U.S. citizen, he grew up mostly in China, Japan, France, and Germany. His godfather was Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China. Linebarger was an expert on Asian, especially Chinese, affairs, served as an officer in WW2, and was a leading authority on psychological warfare. It’s no stretch to say he lead an extraordinary life, but on top of all that he was an accomplished, if under-recognized, writer of science fiction.

Smith

One of his most well-known stories is entitled “Scanners Live in Vain,” and takes place in a setting he called the Instrumentality of Mankind. This universe is about a humanity that was almost wiped out after a nuclear holocaust on Earth, but rather than giving up and dying out rebuilt itself and ventured out to the stars.  Most or all of the stories in the collection I’ve been reading take place in the Instrumentality setting. So far I’ve found Smith’s prose to be easy to read and simple in a good way. The vividness of his imagination is where he shines. 

Without giving away the plot of the story, I wrote the following about “Scanners Live in Vain:”

“Scanners” introduces us to a world in which space travel between planets has been made a reality. In the creations of many other scifi creators, speed and time are often the main hurdles to such methods of transportation. In Smith’s universe, however, the first great obstacle that mankind must overcome to journey among the stars is the “pain of space.” Men who are exposed to space travel experience acute pain and nausea that eventually kills them.

In order to overcome this constraint, the haberman is developed: a machine-like man whose mind has been cut off from all sensory input (except his eyes). His emotions are dulled, and he is equipped with meters and dials that display the status of his vitals. Most habermen are scum – criminals and low-lives who have been sentenced to such a fate that they may work as crew members of spaceships upon which regular humans travel in cold sleep. The lives of most habermen are cheap, and they must be constantly monitored and their vitals adjusted lest their organs fail.

The main characters of “Scanners Live in Vain” are habermen of a different kind. Scanners are volunteers, who undergo the treatment so that they may pilot spaceships and direct the operations of the lesser habermen. They also monitor and manage vitals – their own and those of the other habermen. Scanners are honored, but tragic figures. Their lives are monotonous and lonely, though periodically they are allowed to “cranch,” a process by which their senses are restored and they may live as normal human beings for about a day or two every month.

The imagining of habermen and scanners, and talk throughout the story of “Old Machines” and “Beasts” of the wilds really impressed me. For how many scifi authors unfailingly fall back to almost-generic aliens and robots?

 

Sometimes I’ll read a Smith story, pause, and realize how bonkers it was. I mean some of his stuff is insane, but it works! 

*Spoilers to follow about “Golden the Ship Was -Oh! Oh! Oh!” and “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal”*

In one story, “Golden the Ship Was -Oh! Oh! Oh!” we are told about a war that has become hopeless for Earth. The Instrumentality decides to call up the Golden Ship, a legendary vessel that is kept stored in something called “nonspace.” The Golden Ship is something like 90 million miles long – an inconceivably immense warship of apparently overwhelming power. In Smith’s stories, however, surprises abound and appearances are often deceiving. It turns out that the ship is mostly made of foam and framing and is completely unarmed and defenseless. Its purpose is to jump around and confound and intimidate the enemy, tying up its navy and resources and causing confusion or panic. The real attack on the enemy comes from a small ship containing bio-weapons, a human monitor who will destroy the ship under certain conditions, a pilot, and a little girl who is something called a “chronopathic idiot” – that is, she can rewind time several seconds.

Insanity! Who would think of such things?

In “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal,” the titular commander is suckered by a false distress signal broadcast by a twisted, deviant branch of humanity. The miserable people, colonists to the stars of ages past, encountered a world fatal to females. Determined to survive, the world’s women were scientifically transformed into men. A sick and demented civilization developed, fostering an insane hate for women and for normal humans. Ensnared by these monsters, Suzdal deploys a “life bomb” to a nearby moon along with a number of genetically modified cats, which he has programmed to serve mankind. The kicker – he uses a time travel device to send them back millions of years, to give them time to evolve. Up come their ships from the moon, and the cat people engage Suzdal’s attackers, allowing him to escape.

Wow.

If you’re not sold already, I’m not sure what more I can say. Cordwainer Smith’s stuff is top notch, and if you can find any of it (or care to read at the link above while you’re able), I highly recommend it!

If you’ve already read Smith, what are your favorite stories?

4 Comments

  1. Norstrilia. It is his only novel, but it can be considered the center of his “Instrumentality” stories.

    Linebarger was a fascinating personality; his career as a spy for example.

    • I’ll have to look for that one! The Instrumentality is fascinating, because it seems to me to be rather amoral, focused above all on the survival of mankind.

  2. I love Smith’s completely bonkers storytelling. More than so many other supposedly great sci-fi authors, he created a real, thoroughly intoxicating sense of wonder. He’s funny, touching, terrifying. There’s no place he doesn’t go in his stories.

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